Not what you expect to hear along the beaches, rivers, islands and inlets of the West African coast. It’s far from the southern fringes of the Sahara desert where devastating droughts are common. The palm-fringed coast, a destination for package beach holidays in The Gambia and Senegal, looks green and luxuriant but communities here were among the first to feel the impacts of climate change. 72 year old Bineta Fall compares her life now with how it used to be in her childhood:
“This is a recent problem, it wasn’t here when we were young because we were harvesting a lot of rice and it lasted all year to the next rainy season.”
Despite appearances, erratic rain is a concern for her. Some years there’s not enough, some years too much. It is increasingly unreliable – difficult for farmers to know when to sow. Crops may wither before they ripen, or get washed away at any time. But the greater, insidious problem that has been creeping further and further inland along the rivers is salt. The sea level is rising year by year due to climate change and pushing salt inland, poisoning the soil and making it infertile.
She stands in the field her family used to cultivate. “It’s more than 30 years since we grew anything here,” she kicks up the whitened crust with her foot. “At a certain point we couldn’t carry on.”
Bineta lives on Baout, an island in the Saloum delta, Senegal, a confluence of rivers that empty into the Atlantic. She walks down to the shoreline where rotted wooden stumps protrude from the ground – all that remains of a line of rice stores.
“When we harvested we used to bring the crops here, and it would last for a year until the next rainy season. We fed ourselves well. Rice was abundant; we had no problem with food. We used to have 20 rice stores in the village, but we no longer have one.”
There was once no need to buy food. Women grew rice and gathered shellfish, men fished the river and the open sea. There was a surplus to sell in the mainland markets to meet their needs. But nothing is reliable anymore. ‘Artisanal’ sea fishing by men in open pirogue boats has been hit hard by foreign industrial trawlers fishing close to the shore, and the river fishing and shellfish economy has also been damaged by the salt. Waterside mangrove trees are the breeding grounds for fish and shellfish, but depend on a delicate balance of brackish water - not raw sea water. Mangrove dieback has left vast infertile mudflats, so gathering oysters and other shellfish has become much harder.
“Once upon a time everything was abundant, but now to get much from the sea is really hard.
Bineta continues, “Before we would go fishing, gather oysters and all the sea products and we would sell them in Foundiougne and elsewhere in the towns. But we can’t now, because even to get a bowl of shellfish is tough, we can’t do it any longer.
“The sea is no longer producing much fish, so we can’t depend on the sea. That’s why there’s hard poverty here on the island. To eat now is a problem.”
Continue further down to hear more stories and to find out what measures can be taken in the face of climate change.
Whilst Baout‘s main problem is getting food and making a living, a little further upstream in Fayako the main village has crumbled into the sea, with coastlines creeping inwards as a result of climate change.
“We left here in 1992. We moved because the sea was rising, coming into our houses.”
Ndeye Sour Ndong, a woman in her fifties, stands pointing at some ruins.
“Our feet were in the water, and our health was suffering. Our walls were collapsing and we were spending money on repairs, and every year we would have to repair again.”
Her mood reflects the desolate outlook of ruined buildings. She points out the cemetery a little further inland where cement blocks from the old buildings have been placed in an attempt to protect it from the inexorable encroachment.
Sea levels have been rising slowly over decades but the situation became dramatically worse in 1987 when strong north-westerly waves breached the Sangomar Spit – a long sandbar that had provided some protection to the estuary. More seawater coming in has exacerbated salt levels in the soil leading to the loss of much of the protective mangrove habitat.
So, with food production and livelihoods collapsing, how do communities survive? A visit to a third island in Senegal, Diamniadio, provides an insight. Youssapha Sarr is in his thirties, but looks younger. He reveals the truth of how these communities survive:
“It’s getting tougher, particularly for the poor people here. They can’t rest, all the time they’re working in the sea, but the sea no longer produces what they need. So people whose children have gone abroad and are helping their families; they can survive.”
Remittances from those who have left the islands for the towns and cities of West Africa and countries beyond are supporting those left behind. “Since things are so tough, young people can’t manage, so what we do is migrate to Europe and hope that there is money there,” Youssapha says.
This is happening all over the world as poorer countries feel the impact of climate change. In Asia as well as Africa, hundreds of thousands of people migrate to support their families and prevent a far larger population movement as conditions become impossible to provide even a minimal standard of living.
Youssapha’s personal experience illustrates how tough these decisions can be, and how awful the consequences.
“I knew no one in my family was rich, no one could help me. I had left school because of lack of means… I thought for this sum of money [CFA200,000, roughly $340] I could gain much more in the future. But the boat never reached Spain because of the high seas that prevented us.”
His voice drops as he recounts what happened.
“After five days in the boat at sea the food was finished. We had nothing left so we decided we had to turn back or we would starve. We turned back but many people were dying in the boat and we had to throw them in the sea.
Youssapha continues, “We were hungry, thirsty, exhausted and so we decided to turn back or we would all die. I personally had friends who died on that journey, two boys from here in Diamniadio, we left together, they died in front of me. We spent eight days without any food or water…I was the one who had to inform the families that their children had died. I didn’t want to, but I had to tell them to put their minds at rest.
“We were 150 people in the boat; when we got back to shore, we were only 29 alive.”
Youssapha is now working as a field officer for ActionAid Senegal, specifically working to reach young people and try to find alternatives to this risky journey, but it is a struggle to dissuade them from the mindset; If I’m poor I will have to take a boat to get to Europe to get something to eat and support my village.
He also has a message for the world leaders debating climate change:
“The message I want to send to the conference is to tell the leaders to come to Africa, to come to this island because we are suffering. We are victims of this climate change.
“We need help from them because the water is rising, it is taking our lands and we don’t know how far it will go. So we are starving, we don’t have a secure way of life. So we are asking for support, come here and think of us.”
And read on to hear about the dykes and systems that are being deployed in The Gambia to respond to these issues.
Is the situation so bad that there’s no turning back? Maybe in some areas; there are some islands in the Saloum that have lost their entire population. In others there is a holding operation – in Baout initiatives have been set up to harvest rainwater for ‘table gardens’, a way of growing vegetables that avoids salt inundated soil and water.
People suffering from hypertension is an increasing problem as the groundwater that supplies drinking water becomes saltier. An innovative small-scale solar water desalinisation plant supplies the best water inhabitants have ever tasted. These initiatives make life more tolerable, but seem unlikely to reverse the decline.
However, barely 120km down the coast in The Gambia, in a very similar environment, some impressive steps have been taken to reverse the damage…
Juffureh is a small town on the north bank of the Gambia River, best known as the birth place of Kunta Kinte in Alex Haley’s book ‘Roots’. It became part of a circuit for a very specific tourism, perhaps better described as a pilgrimage, including Gorée Island in Senegal and the well preserved forts along the Ghanaian and Benin coast – forceful reminders of the Atlantic Slave Trade. The shoreline and James Island (also known as Kunta Kinte Island) opposite Juffureh in the river, have remains of forts, trading posts, cannons and other reminders of the trade in people from West Africa and the subsequent colonial occupations.
Just upriver from the jetty at Juffureh an earth rampart stretches along the bank separating the river from the rice fields. Binta Fadera, a farmer, inspects the condition of the dyke and the spillways built at intervals along it.
“This dyke was only constructed this year, so we are just planting a little to see how it works. This small part we planted as a test has grown beyond our expectations, it has germinated very well. It indicates that we will get back to where we were before as a result of this rice field.”
The world needs to hear these messages from people in West Africa who are being affected by climate change now.
‘Before’ is a long time ago:
“It’s the last 18 years I’m talking about. During that time we couldn’t cultivate anything here because of the salt intrusion, it spoiled the entire land and during that time you wouldn’t see green grass, just dry grass…
“Before 20 years ago we were getting enough food to feed ourselves. There are certain rice fields here, you call the whole village to harvest and you won’t be able to finish it, you get over 100 bundles of rice and you still haven’t finished harvesting. When the women harvested their rice they would keep it right through to the next harvest without finishing it,” says Binta.
The salt intrusion has had far reaching consequences – people have to buy rice, and somehow find money to pay for it. The Gambia has to spend its limited foreign exchange on importing rice. All the other things that people need their meagre earnings for suffer:
“Do you think if your stomach isn’t full that you’ll think of paying your children’s school fees? We have to buy imported rice – that’s where our money goes.”
The same goes for healthcare or anything else that could improve people’s quality of life. The need for money results in desperate measures: “The problems we have in buying rice has caused our sons to migrate, some even through the ‘backway’ [unofficial migration] just to get something. We have many of them, some of them died along the way.”
The dyke has brought hope. The principles are simple, keep the salt water out, use fresh rain water to flush the land. Lamin Jarju, an enthusiastic young project manager with the Gambian organisation ADWAC (Agency for Development of Women and Children), explains how the dykes and spillways work:
“This is the river [on one side], and that’s the rice field [on the other]. What this spillway gate does is to control the inflow of salt water from the river to the rice field. And what on this side it does is to help the flushing of the salt that is already dissolved, out to the river. The other function of the spillway gate is to control the amount of water that can stay in the field.”
The technology is basic, but it’s expensive to build on the ground:
“You need an excavator, you need a grader, you need a compactor – all of these do a different kind of job… of course we need some tractors to help you collect gravel and sand while you are making your spillway. A rough rule of thumb is US$100,000 per kilometre – and some dykes are several kilometres long - in order to reclaim large areas of productive land.
“These costs are way beyond local communities, or even local governments.”
On the scale they need to be built they are beyond the means of international development agencies and even most African governments.
This is why people are pinning hopes on this year’s big climate conference, ‘COP21’, taking place in Paris in December. In principle everyone’s agreed – poorer countries need help. They haven’t produced the emissions or gained benefit from the over-consumption that has resulted in climate change, but are at the sharp end of the impacts.
But how much and who from is highly contentious. Who exactly will pay to reclaim hundreds of thousands of hectares of farming land that can give communities a future on the land? Who will pay for relocating those communities where the damage has gone too far?
In The Gambia hope is high, and Lamin Jarju is keen to show the results of the biggest and best project ADWAC has managed.
At the convergence of a network of muddy tracks sits Salikene market in the pouring rain. Next to the market a zinc-walled shack houses a rackety diesel engine. Women with bowls of brown rice come to have the rice milled.
This machine, provided by ADWAC to ease the burden on women having to de-husk the rice manually, is testament to the efficacy of the Salikene dyke. By the time of the rainy season only three years ago any locally produced rice would be long finished and women would be buying from the stacks of imported rice in the store across the village square.
Nyara Fatty trades vegetables in the market:
“Before the construction of the dyke, we had a lot of difficulties because the rice fields in the swampy areas were abandoned due to salt intrusion. But when the dyke was constructed by ADWAC, we started using those rice fields again.
“We get a lot of rice from there that is improving our livelihood. The salt intrusion was solved by the dyke and now we live on what we grow.”
Sheltering from the rain in the warehouse ADWAC has built to safely store the harvests and keep a stock of seed for future years, Natto Dibba, endorsed this: “Previously when there was no dyke, salinity affected us. That made our lives hard.”
“But, thank God, when the dyke was constructed here in Salikene we now have plenty of food to eat and sell. Before the dyke, my rice harvest didn’t even last a month, and there are many other women like me. But since we have had the dyke, I have rice throughout the year, right up to the rainy season.”
“The total land coverage, as far as this project is concerned, that it has reclaimed is over 2000 hectares of land. We started the project in 2012, it went through 2013 and partly 2014. We have on this dyke nine spillways, very huge ones you can see. After a while, a little bit later, they will open the gate, this will allow the rest of the salt that is already dissolved to be flushed outside from the field.
“Since 2012, the farmers in this community have started planting. We have seen significant improvement in the productivity as far as this area is concerned. These community members will tell you, this land had not been used for the past 30 years, but since 2012 to date they started and for some households buying rice from the shop, imported rice, from outside The Gambia has become history.”
But Lamin emphasises that the physical infrastructure is only one aspect of the process:
“The community you can see is trying very well, they make sure they monitor the spillway because the sustainability of the dyke highly depends on the spillway. The dyke management committee in this community is very much effective in the way they do their work. Any time there is heavy downpours, they ensure that they are on the ground to see the level of the water. So that continuous checking here and there is always on the ground to make sure that all the systems are working fine.
“Here right now in Salikene, it is a community of over four thousand people. The entire community are farmers. Every household in Salikene is producing rice here. So this four kilometre dyke is taking care of the livelihoods of over four thousand people. And in fact we are hopeful that this is going to increase because more people from Salikene who are living in the urban areas are now coming to join their families to do production on this land.”
Lamin thinks there is great potential for commercial rice production in the area and the prospect of increased income should reduce the need for young people to find ways to migrate. But this dyke has cost a lot – around $350,000 - and there are many other communities whose lives could be transformed by this kind of investment.
It’s really important that these stories are heard. These communities are disproportionately bearing the burden of climate change, and decisions are being made right now about what to do. This is why ActionAid is demanding that UN negotiations provide support for countries to take on adaptation projects so that they can cope with these impacts.
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